The Farrelly Brothers Redeem The Three Stooges

“You will always be children!” Steven Spielberg encouraged last year’s Comic-Con gathering when he previewed scenes from The Adventures of Tintin. Infantilization has become contemporary Hollywood’s standard method for making or selling its product but Hollywood rarely deals with that subject as explicitly as in the Farrelly brothers’ The Three Stooges.

First depicting the Stooges’ backstory as brats at Our Lady of Mercy Orphanage, directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly go to the essence of their fondness for the 1930s anarchist clown trio. The downright infantile, barely libidinal mayhem of The Three Stooges (Moe and Curly Howard plus Larry Fine–and sometimes Shemp Howard) has special appeal to boys. The maxim that love of The Three Stooges is what separates males from females has uncanny truth, It’s also what separated the Stooges from their great peers in Hollywood comedy, the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers who made artful farces that extended ethnic vaudeville while the Stooges birthed an non-ethnic nearly autistic soon-to-be tradition.

The Farrellys stay true to the Stooges’ chaos and their reckless, hasty film style, dividing the new movie into segments like the old Stooges shorts subjects. Those shorts were the primary source of their cultural immortality when played on television to new generations during the 1950s and 1960s, even causing a brief resurgence of the old pranksters’ reputation (as in the 1960s reboots The Three Stooges in Orbit and The Outlaws Is Coming).

It is the Stooges’ childish indifference to others that equally inspired proto-punk musician Iggy Pop as well as the Farrelly Brothers (though to different ends; a benign Iggy performs a song over the Farrellys‘ end credits). And the charm of the Farrellys’ movie comes from recognizing how that “indifference” inspired the Farrellys’ singular slapstick humanism. This film–a true homage more than a reboot–provides the unfettered pleasure of wild childishness. When the kiddie Stooges are replaced by adults (Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe, Will Sasso as Curly and Sean Hayes as Larry), the performances are uncannily faithful.

Diamantopoulos, Sasso and Hayes become the Stooges. This time, shot in color, the idea of the Stooges seems to bloom as if a new flower ready to be sniffed and examined. And the actors perform the physical and vocal stunts (including the ineffable “N‘yuck, N‘yuck, N‘yuck” and chiming “Hello! Hello! Hello!”) with alacrity and crazy grace. Their choreography looks unstudied. The Farrellys know how to do disreputable hilarity, even without the presence of Jim Carrey’s genius as in their fitful but often uproarious The Heartbreak Kid. (A coda with hunks Justin Lopez and Antonio Sabato portraying the Farrellys makes the ultimate joke on unreliable Hollywood impersonations.)

Yet the spirit of the film is still the same unruly, outrageous humor that caused the Farrellys to redefine normality along with inappropriateness–as in the wonderful disabilities humor of their Stuck on You, Me, Myself and Irene, Shallow Hal, The Ringer and There’s Something About Mary. (They disinfect nun and priest jokes that would have been vile from other filmmakers.) The Farrellys reapportion a child’s knack for violence, tantrum, unchecked instinct and untutored ineptitude into a crude yet open view of behavior. When the Stooges are asked to save their orphanage, then asked to commit murder to raise funding (Sofia Vergara overplaying a vixen), their innocence leads to haphazard fate and moral choice that are consistent with unpretentious free will–and always good will which is preferable to the smug vulgarity of Judd Apatow humor. That’s the childishness that taints contemporary film culture. But the Farrelly brothers rediscover a liberating purity in Stoogeness.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair